In all the excitement over Dark Souls’ intricately detailed world, subtle storytelling, and tough-but-fair challenge, I think the simple extraordinary elegance of the estus flask is often overlooked.
For those of you who are not familiar with the systems of Dark Souls, the estus flasks are essentially reusable healing potions. You get a set number of them, usually five to start with, and can use one at any time to restore your health – however, this carries a risk, since using a flask leaves you immobile and defenseless for about a second, which is plenty of time for things to go catastrophically wrong. You can do things to increase the number of estus you can carry or increase the health restored with each use as well, but the basic system doesn’t change – and, in Dark Souls, these flasks are the main way to restore health, though it can also be done by using spells,which are limited in the exact same way as estus, or by a few other items which range from fairly uncommon to extremely rare.
To appreciate just how elegant estus flasks are, you have to compare them to the other popular systems for healing in games. Many games have healing items that you can use once, but this usually means that either they are rare and precious or they player has a functionally infinite supply. On the one side, the player is scared to use healing items because they don’t know when they’ll get more, and in the other the player can basically always be healed to full between encounters – not a bad thing inherently, but raises the question of, then, why not just refill the player’s health automatically between encounters, something which is indeed done in many later RPGs. Another popular system in use now is regenerating health, restoring the player to full whenever they manage to avoid damage for a while. This creates a flow between hiding and attacking which, um, I guess some people like, but results in a character who can absorb an essentially infinite amount of punishment for no apparent reason as long as they pace themselves when eating bullets.
Estus flasks combine these two systems. When in danger, you need to search for an opening, either by finding cover or exploiting a pause in your opponent’s attack pattern, just like with regenerating health. And, as with more traditional healing items, you have to be concerned with being efficient and effective in combat so that you don’t run out, without having to worry about conserving them for a hypothetical future where they might be more precious.
This may all seem like a fine detail, but the beloved balance of the game rests on the humble estus flask. Enemies can perform extremely high damage attacks that kill the player in just a few hits because the player always has a chance to recover to full: Thus, instead of the battle being one of attrition, where the player tries to keep the enemy from eroding their health, it becomes a tug-of-war, the player trying to keep their health above zero by creating opportunities to heal while evading the enemy attacks and still finding openings to attack their opponent and reduce their health to zero. The tension of the battles is every bit as much a product of the elegant design of the healing items as it is the design of the battles themselves.
Are estus flasks an unprecedented innovation? Well, not quite. In fact, I can think of one precedent, and it’s an interesting point of comparison: Far Cry 2. The healing syrettes in the secret best Far Cry function similarly to estus flasks and are limited to four at a time (upgradeable over the course of the game). They can, as well, be restocked at set points, though unlike in Dark Souls these are frequently in hostile territory, so the player has to put themselves at risk to do so. This results in much the same flow, though, where the player’s health can vanish to almost nothing in an instant, only to be recovered in a tense moment hiding from gunfire behind a tree, a lethal tug-of-war, replicated between two vastly dissimilar games.